FOLLOWING a major blow in Californian courts recently, widely-used herbicide glyphosate has continued to take a battering, as industry professionals continue to argue that its downfall sets the scene for robotics that will target pesticides much more precisely and sparingly.

Recently, a US court held Monsanto’s glyphosate responsible for causing cancer in a ground keeper, eventually awarding $289M of damages, a critical verdict in that some say demonstrates that glyphosate is on shaky ground.

Many have argued for some time now that the agrochemical has managed only to just about retain its legal permits in the face of mounting concern over its toxicity and that this verdict, even if subject to appeal, will have surely sounded the alarm bells in the board rooms of agrochemical companies worldwide.

Discussing the link between this verdict and agricultural robotics, research director at UK-based company IDTechEx, Dr Khasha Ghaffarzadeh has pointed out that in previous studies, he has argued that agricultural robots are the long-term future of the agrochemical business, and that this verdict only serves to reinforce this argument, demonstrating that agrochemical businesses need to urgently start reinventing themselves as being in the business of controlling weeds, and not just agrochemical supplies. He believes that, inevitably, robots, AI, and smart agricultural tools will come to form a major part of a weed control (not chemical) focused business.

The IDTechEx Research report Agricultural Robots and Drones 2018-2038: Technologies, Markets and Players analyses how robotic market and technology developments will change the business of agriculture, enabling ultra-precision and/or autonomous farming and helping address key global challenges. It also develops a detailed roadmap of how robotic technology will become the future of agrochemicals business and how it will modify the way we design agricultural machinery.

Dr Ghaffarzadeh explained: "Precision agriculture has been around for decades. That has now all changed thanks to developments in other industries such as consumer electronics. For several years now, companies have demonstrated robotics equipped with deep learning based advance vision technologies that can rapidly distinguish between crops and weeds and to rapidly take site specific action to eliminate the weed. One such example was Blue River Technologies which was acquired by John Deere in 2017 for $305M. Interestingly, Blue River Technologies counted amongst its investors some of the world’s largest agrochemical makers including Monsanto!"

He continued: "This approach is radically different from the glyphosate-based approach in which the non-selective herbicide kills everything apart from the genetically engineered seeds. This technology lays the foundation for doing more than just weed control – it can evolve to site specific fertilizer and nutrient deposition technique.

"This technique is only set to improve. The algorithms will certainly get better with practise or more real data. The cost of data acquisition, management, and analysis will only further fall. And the fleets of unmanned small robots will increasingly become sufficiently productive to compete with large manned agricultural vehicles. All these technologies have significant upside potential whereas the existing technologies has long matured, making only small incremental gains."

IDTechEc believe that agrochemicals companies have no choice but to become intricately involved with robotics and AI, and that two technologies will shape the future of their business. The advent of precision see-and-spray technologies will drastically impact on the volume and type of the chemicals employed, potentially transforming the business from one in which they sell bulk non-selective chemicals towards one in which they sell many specialized selective chemicals tailored to various plants. Furthermore, the value chain will become more digitised with data and intelligence capturing a more significant part of the overall value. This will inevitably enable new data-based farm management techniques in which agrochemicals are used differently than today.

"Agricultural robotics will shape the long-term future of agrochemical business" concluded Dr Ghaffarzadeh, "This long-term future however may be upon us sooner if similar court cases put legal restrains on the current technology, raising its risk and costs, and if herbicide-resistant weeds continue their rapid march across areas in which such chemicals are heavily used."